A Fatal White Embrace by Dazzle

 

Summary: Connor buys mistletoe. Answer to the ACAngst Christmas Challenge.

 

Spoilers: Through "Rain of Fire."

 

Notes: Thanks to Niamh and Inamorata for great betaing and encouragement.

 

 

Be of good cheer -- Christmas is near. All I want for Christmas is you. I'll have a blue Christmas without you.

What is it about Christmas carols anyway? When you're happy -- buying gifts, or taping name tags onto presents, or watching "Miracle on 34th Street" on TBS -- they're so cheerful. But when you're hurting, somehow, they're the saddest songs in the world.

I haven't heard them that often this year. I don't go out much. But sometimes, like now, when the windows are open, I can hear them pouring out of cars that drive by. The carols change key slightly as they get further away, and I want to get up and close the windows to stop them, but that would involve moving.

He knows if you've been bad or good, so you'd better be good, for goodness' sake.

The door opens. I don't bother looking up, because there's only one person it could possibly be.

"Hey," Connor says. He's uneasy -- I can tell by the way he hesitates at his own door. After a moment, he goes to the little table and puts down the grocery bags. He's bought the usual stuff: chips, crackers and cookies. Bargain-brand root beer. Chef Boyardee. These days, I eat this crap without complaining. At first it was because I really wasn't sure if anything tasted any better -- I knew the fact that steak is generally preferred to Beefaroni, but I couldn't remember what steak tasted like. Now that I do remember -- well, buying my own groceries would also involve moving.

As you might have guessed, I don't get out of bed much lately. Which is kinda ironic when you think about it, seeing as how getting in bed helped wreck my life in the first place.

"There's juice," Connor says.

It's just about the only thing he could have said that would make me sit up and look at him. I run my hand through my hair, as if it could possibly matter what I look like. "You got me some juice?" I've been craving something, anything, with vitamins in it, which is no wonder after a month of Oreos.

Connor's face lights up; he wants so badly to please me, to make me happy. He holds out a little bottle of orange juice, and I take it from his hands like the offering it is. I should say thank you, but instead I'm popping free the top and chugging it. Oh, GOD, that tastes great. For one moment, all I can think is, "juice good," and sadly, this is probably the high point of my life since returning to earth.

I don't put the bottle down until I've drunk it all. By then, Connor's putting the groceries away, which involves placing them on a board between two cinderblocks. Left to his own devices, Connor would just leave it all in the grocery bags and eat out of those until he's done. Being neat around the house is another thing he does to please me.

He loves me, as much as a boy like him can love. In some ways, that's frighteningly deep -- I mean, if I told Connor to throw himself into a volcano, he'd do it, no questions asked. Except, maybe, "Where did this volcano come from?", but you know what I mean. But in some ways, it's not that deep at all. He's not somebody who could press money in my hand and send me off to vacation with Groo, just because he thought it would make me happy. Connor thinks that love is something you can force, that if he tries hard enough, he'll make me love him back. He tries so hard that it breaks my heart.

The groceries are all in plastic sacks, but there's one paper bag too. When he starts unloading that one, my heart sinks.

Tinsel. Plastic holly. Lights. My stomach clenches, and I have to force myself not to groan.

Connor looks up hesitantly. My expression must tell the whole story. "The woman at the store said these were the things to get," he says. "Are they not right?"

"They are," I say. "I just -- Connor, you can't care about Christmas."

He shrugs, all pretend diffidence. "I thought maybe you would like them."

I ought to say that I do like them, that they're pretty. I should get my lazy ass out of bed for the first time today and help him put the stuff up. That would be the polite thing to do. The kind thing to do.

But I've been kind to Connor once, and look where it got me.

Connor takes out a small bundle of green leaves and white berries, and it's all I can do not to scream. Mistletoe. He's brought home mistletoe.

He glances upward and sees me watching, and for one instant, there's a shadow of a smile on his face. The woman at the store must have told him that mistletoe is for kissing. Connor's still such a kid that he believes a kiss could solve everything.

For one moment, I imagine what it would be like if Angel ever kissed me again. If he ever kissed me for real - no visions I was trying to transfer, no ghosts inside us trying to take over. Just him. Just me.

I wish I could believe that a kiss could solve everything.

***

I tried to explain. Angel wasn't in any mood to hear it, and I can't really blame him, even though I tried to. I blew it off like it was nothing -- because to me it was nothing, and I thought if I made it sound like it didn't matter, then it wouldn't. But that only made things worse; Angel felt like I was telling him he didn't have any right to be mad, and boy, he really did.

See, I understand all that now. But then, I was just so embarrassed, so upset, so frantic to somehow put things right, that I just kept talking and talking. And Angel just got madder and madder. His eyes were dark, and his muscles were tensed; he was hostility made flesh, totally closed off, totally angry.

Angelus, I thought. I had seen him through the eyes of the Powers. They'd showed me his cruelty, his vindictiveness, his delight in the misery of others, over and over again, victim after victim after victim. They were demanding that I look at the man I loved -- really look, for the first time ever. I saw him tell a trembling young man to be of good cheer at Christmas, moments before he killed him. I saw him rape an old woman, completely free of any erotic impulse, just for the fun of shaming her. I saw him rip out his mother's throat. I knew Angelus now, and I thought that at any moment he would unfold before me, full of hatred, ready to kill. I was frightened. I was angry -- because if you really know Angelus, you can't not want to kick him in the balls. More than anything, I thought I was ready. I thought that if Angel's fury became great enough, and Angelus came spilling out, I could deal.

Until the moment that I tried to tell Angel how it began -- I started describing the rain of fire, how sure I was that the world would end, how impoverished Connor's life had been, what I'd said to him --

Angel put his hand up, as if trying to ward off a blow. His voice cracked as he said, "Don't make me hear."

All the anger fell away. All my defensiveness, all my attempts to put things right, crumbled into dust. All I could see was the man I loved, begging me not to tell him what it was like to screw his son. Angelus was nowhere to be seen. Just a man in love, hurt and humiliated beyond the bearing of it, pleading to be spared that last shred of the agonizing truth.

I want to say that I knew at that moment how badly I'd hurt Angel, how badly I could still hurt him. But I don't know if I'll ever really understand that. What I did realize then was how much pain I'd caused myself -- not just that night, but for the rest of my life.

***

"Why is this plant special to Christmas?" Connor says. He's pretending not to know about the mistletoe. If I were five years younger and not heartbroken about another man, it would be endearing. As it is, I want to smack him.

I don't, of course. If Connor's got the wrong idea about us, I only have myself to blame. "It blooms around Christmastime," I tell him. That's true as far as it goes.

Connor scoots just a little bit closer. He's sitting on the edge of the bed, wishing, like he does every night, that I'd let him sleep there again. Just sleep, he says. Uh-HUH. Then again, after a month of sleeping on the floor, the poor kid might just be that desperate for a mattress. Doesn't matter. I'm not taking the chance. Besides, I couldn't possibly sleep with him next to me ever again -- and I need so much sleep these days. It's like I'm exhausted from the moment I wake up until I sleep again.

He says, "But what does it mean?" As he gestures at the tinsel he's strung around the windows, he says, "It all means something, right?"

I'm pretty sure that tinsel doesn't mean anything. But I know what Connor's getting at. He wants me to admit that mistletoe is for kissing, so that when he "accidentally" meets up with me beneath it, I won't be able to play dumb and get out of it.

I tell him a different truth. "Mistletoe is a parasite," I say. "It grows on other trees, and over time, it chokes them to death. You can use the berries for a poison, too. Mistletoe is -- it's really deadly. Bad stuff."

"Oh," Connor says. His eyebrows knit together in confusion; he wants to know why something so terrible stands for Christmas and kissing. It's not a bad question, really, but I don't know the answer, so I don't have to feel guilty for turning away from him. Conversation over.

After a few minutes, he gets up and opens himself a can of cold Spaghetti-Os. His favorite.

***

"Mistletoe is a parasite," Miguel said.

He was just one of many different gardeners we employed when I was little; my mom went through domestic staff pretty quickly, given that she was a very demanding woman who had an unhealthy relationship with painkillers. Miguel stuck it out longer than most, and he was one of the few members of the staff who really seemed to have time for me. They all had to put up with me occasionally, but Miguel never seemed to mind. He would let me walk the grounds with him, and he explained how to take care of roses, when you should and shouldn't prune. He let me help him mulch, and he would always rinse my hands off with the hose, so my mom wouldn't see the grime under my nails and freak out. And he told me about mistletoe.

"The mistletoe will kill this tree," he said. The old oak looked so tall and strong, and the mistletoe was just a few pale vines wrapped around some branches. "It will take years, but it will happen."

"Can't you fix it?" I said. "Can't we cut the mistletoe down?"

"We could treat it," Miguel explained. "But then we would have to wrap the tree's branches in garbage bags and keep it wrapped up for months."

He didn't have to explain why we weren't doing just that. My mom would never be able to have a garden party with one of her trees covered with trash bags.

"Maybe the mistletoe will just die," I suggested hopefully.

"Maybe," Miguel said, but his voice was gentle. He didn't lie to me a lot. "Mistletoe is strong. Most parasites are."

I looked up at the big old tree, still so peaceful, not knowing anything at all, and its death was wrapped all around it. It seemed so wrong and so unfair, that the tree could be left there to fade in the mistletoe's fatal white embrace.

Then I started to cry -- what do you want? I was 7 -- and Miguel got on his knees to dry my tears. He told me that the mistletoe had a right to live too, that it was nature's way. And even as a little girl, I knew that Miguel was a good man; I tried to remember what he was like, because I wanted to find someone like him someday. I wanted to recognize a man like that when he came along.

I did, and I screwed it up anyway.

***

Late at night -- almost morning -- I wake up feeling sick. I knew I shouldn't have let Connor talk me into eating Spam.

I tiptoe into the bathroom; Connor doesn't keep any medicine on hand, not a Band-Aid, not an aspirin, but at least I can splash some cold water on my face. Connor's asleep on his thin pallet, and with his acute hearing, I expect him to awaken at any moment. But he must be exhausted, because he doesn't stir.

No sooner do I close the bathroom's door than I realize -- I don't just feel sick, I'm gonna be sick. The only thing worse than puking, by the way, is having to try and be quiet while you're puking. Also add into the equation that the last meal was Spam. Ew, gross.

And yet in some weird way it feels good to be throwing up -- like if I vomit hard enough, somehow I'll get all the sickness inside me out. All this twisted, painful darkness that's been knotted inside of me -- I want to get it out, get it out, get it out, OH, God --

It doesn't help, of course. Once my stomach's empty, I feel better physically, but the darkness is still in there. That's on my soul, not in my body, and I don't think I'll get rid of it, not ever.

I flush, rinse my mouth out with water. When I tiptoe back out to bed, Connor's awake; he doesn't say anything, doesn't even move, but I can tell. I wait for him to ask after me, but he doesn't. That's not because Connor doesn't care, but because he knows I don't want him to ask. He has all this concern with no place to go; it's just tied up inside him. Of me, Angel and Connor, Connor may have been the least hurt by what I did, but he's hurting all the same.

***

Do you want me to tell you it was awful? It wasn't.

No, it wasn't a thrilling night of erotic adventure. Connor might not have been a virgin, but he certainly hadn't had loads of experience. Also, there was that whole world-on-fire element that cut into the romantic abandon somewhat.

But I was frightened and miserable, and if I didn't love Connor, he loved me, and it felt good to be held by someone. Just to feel someone else's heart beating close to mine. Connor was so happy -- SO happy, deep down, like he was glowing beneath his skin. I never made anybody that happy before, and I hadn't realized that it made you feel so powerful, so beautiful.

The one moment I hesitated was when I saw Connor's naked body for the first time. He was handsome and fit, and a lot of girls would have been thrilled to see somebody like him climbing into their bed, but it just hit me how unlike Angel he was: slim to Angel's solid, youthful to Angel's powerful. For that one moment I had to remember that it was Angel I really wanted to hold me as the world ended.

But I knew I never could have made Angel this happy. I mean, I could have, but what would have been the price? Something even worse than the fire raining down above us, or so I thought at the time. On the other side of Angel's happiness is Angelus. That was what the Powers had showed me, what they had warned me about. Like I needed more warning.

Of course, it turns out that there's something on the other side of Connor's happiness too. It's quieter and smaller, made of despair rather than horror. Instead of endangering the whole world, it just traps the two of us here like flies in amber. But for all that, it doesn't lack for pain.

Angel's trapped too, I guess. I don't know the particulars of his situation, so I imagine them, in different shades and shapes of torment. We don't speak. Back before this happened, he used to stalk us sometimes, in his special creepy loving way; Connor and I would both pretend we didn't know, but all the while, Angel was looking out for us. He doesn't anymore.

***

Connor gives me a root beer and a honeybun for breakfast. "I think that juice is bad for your stomach," he says, so amazingly off-base that I want to cry. God, my stomach probably freaked out just from having to deal with natural ingredients again.

"I'm fine," I tell him automatically.

"You're not," he says. He hesitates for another moment, then sits on the edge of the bed. "You're still missing him." Connor says it like it's a secret he's pried from me, not anything obvious at all.

"Yeah," I say. There's so much more to say, but I guess that really covers it.

He doesn't know whether to be angry or hurt, and he's a little of both. "He doesn't want you anymore. Angel's not coming back for you, Cordelia." It's worse because Connor's not saying it to wound me. He's trying to break it to me gently.

"I know. But it doesn't matter. I still miss him." I pause, but then I say it, because Connor needs to hear it. "I still love him."

His chest rises and falls, a deep, quick breath, absorbing the pain. "Someday you won't," he says. "Someday you'll get over him."

I'm not going to argue this with Connor. Instead I say what he needs to hear: "I'm not going to fall in love with you."

Connor's on his feet in an instant, bouncing on his heels. "You don't know that. Nobody knows for sure how they're going to feel, do they? You used to like me, back before you remembered him. So someday, maybe --"

Maybe I won't remember that the night we had sex was the night that ruined my life? No chance. "Connor, no. You can't keep torturing yourself like this, waiting for something that's not going to come."

"Why not?" His voice breaks a little, and his cheeks flush with embarrassment that battles with his pain. "What's wrong with me? What did I do that was bad?"

"Nothing. Nothing. You didn't do anything, Connor." Oh, God, poor kid. He wants to try and hide his heartbreak from me, and he can't. It hasn't happened to him before. "You're a great ki -- a great guy. I do like you. I do care about you. Just -- not that way." I wish I could touch his arm or hug him or something, but I know that would only make it worse. "I'm sorry."

Connor stares at me for a long moment, then says, "If you didn't want to be with me -- like that -- then why did we --" He struggles for the right phrase. "-- go to bed together?"

"I told you that night," I say. Why did I ever think a hormonal boy with a willing woman was going to concentrate on the fine print and remember it later? "You'd had such a bad life, and we were in a lot of danger -- are in a lot of danger, I guess -- and I just wanted to do something to make you happy. And you were happy, weren't you? I didn't think about the consequences. I didn't think we'd be around to deal with them."

He listens to me -- really listening, focusing on me with all his considerable intensity. Then he cocks his head, just the way he does when he's heard a vampire in an alleyway. "You felt bad for me." Connor's eyes go dark. "You felt pity."

Pity. He spits it out of his mouth like a dirty word. In Connor's world, it is. I want to tell him that's not true, but I can't. As he balls his hands into fists, he says, "I never wanted your pity."

For one instant, I remember the way Angel looked at me -- with Angelus just beneath the surface. In that instant, I can see that Angelus is also Connor's father. But then Connor's face cracks, just the way Angel's did, and there's nothing left but pain and shame. His eyes fill with tears; embarrassed by that, too, he runs out of the room.

I flop back down onto the mattress and have my first cry of the day; by the time I've pulled myself together, my head is aching and heavy, my eyes swollen. I clutch the pillow to myself, the closest thing to a hug I get these days.

Connor will come back. It will be several hours, maybe not until tonight. He'll kill a few vampires to burn off some energy. When he comes in, he'll pretend this discussion never happened. If I'm lucky, he'll pretend the sex never happened. If I'm not, he'll slowly work his hopes back up until I have to destroy them again. Cordelia the destroyer.

In a flash, I can see the future -- not a vision, just an understanding of how things will be. If the world doesn't end, we'll get past this. Nothing will ever be the way it was again, but we won't just stop here, stuck in the same grooves of blame and despair. Angel won't be angry forever.

I try not to tell myself that he'll forgive me, that he'll still love me as much as he did before. As I know from watching Connor, there is no cruelty as sharp-edged as hope. I'm kinder to myself than I am to Connor. The future I see for me and Angel is quieter.

Someday Angel will be polite when he sees me. Maybe we'll even work together on a case, or follow up on a vision, the same way he'd cooperate with Fred or Gunn. He will fall in love with someone else, or shanshu and go off to try and get Buffy back, or just give up on women altogether. When Angel is done being angry with me, all we'll get back is a shadow of what we used to be. What we could have been.

But when Angel gets done being angry with Connor, he will love him just as much as he always has. I know he still loves Connor, even now. You can break up with women who cheat on you, but you don't break up with your children.

Deep down, where he thinks nobody can see it, where he pretends not to see it himself, Connor loves his father back. He wants his father in his life as badly as Angel wants his son.

So someday, they'll be together. They'll be close. They will love each other, probably better than they ever did before. It may be months -- probably more like years. But it will happen. When it does, I will just be one of the obstacles they both had to get past. The only traces of my time in their lives will be as faint lines of remembered pain. They will have matching scars.

***

If the world had ended that night, and we'd gone to heaven, I think I would have seen Angel there. I think he would have made it. He would have looked into my eyes, and he would have seen what I'd done with Connor, why I did it, how I felt. I could have looked him straight in the face, and he would have forgiven it all.

Sleeping with Connor -- that wasn't when I betrayed him.

The Powers showed me everything Angel had been. Everything Angelus was. All the hatred, all the deception, all the cruelty. They showed me all that to warn me. I thought they were warning me to stay away. But that wasn't what they meant at all.

Now -- only now -- do I see what they intended, the lesson I should have learned. They were letting me face Angelus in my own time, when I had heaven to shield me, my abilities to sustain me. I couldn't take my horror and repugnance out on Angel then. I had all that time to understand. To accept. To forgive.

Instead, I ran away like a scared little girl. Not like a champion, not like a woman in love. When I told him that I had seen the monster inside him, that I could never be with somebody who'd been what he had been, I betrayed everything -- his friendship, my mission, our love. I remember the look in his eyes then, as he held my hand and listened to me. Those words must have burned him like acid, pierced him to the depths of his soul. When I had my vision afterward, he made sure I was all right, stayed with me when I was weak. But there was something beneath the surface of his love and concern, something that even then I knew was dread. He didn't know just how I was going to hurt him next, but from that moment on, he knew that I would.

Angel is the Powers' warrior against the forces of evil, and we are in the middle of the ultimate battle against darkness. The fate of the world, of all our souls, is wrapped in what Angel does in the coming days. I could have been by his side, supporting him and making him stronger during the greatest fight of all our lives.

Instead, Angel will face the darkness alone.

***

Mid-afternoon, I finally reach my breaking point and take a shower. I wash my oily hair; Connor doesn't have shampoo, only soap, but a few latherings get my scalp squeaky-clean. I change into some of the clean clothes I have left. My pants feel tight when I zip them up, and the knit shirt pulls across my breasts. I guess if you're lying around all day eating nothing but junk food, you shouldn't be surprised that you're gaining weight.

I'll have to get it together and do laundry soon. Maybe tonight, as long as I'm up. I have a few bucks, so maybe I can go get a real meal, too. There's a chintzy cafeteria a few blocks away, the kind of place I would normally never visit, but right now, the thought of all those trays of vegetables - carrots and string beans and peas -- makes my mouth water. Definitely the cafeteria. I have a day like this about once a week. I don't feel better, not really. I'm just able to do what I have to do. So there's no time like the present to tackle the decorations.

Connor comes back around dusk. He doesn't say anything about the juice he puts on the shelf as a peace offering. He is already beginning to rebuild his hopes. Instead of setting him straight or throwing the juice out the window or doing him a favor and walking out of his life for good, I just take a bottle and keep on with my work.

"You didn't like it," he says, as I dump the plastic holly in a bag.

"I don't guess I'm in the Christmas spirit," I reply. "We'll drop the decorations by the Salvation Army, okay? Somebody else will probably want them."

Connor shrugs. This aspect of the Christmas spirit is lost on him. But he starts taking down the tinsel.

On one shelf I find the mistletoe; he never did put it up. The green leaves are dark in my palm, the berries white.

Sometimes we know our poisons. But sometimes they wrap around us, slowly and gently, and we don't even suspect the death beyond a moment's embrace.

A car drives by, Christmas music spilling from its speakers. Tidings of comfort and joy. God and sinners reconciled. Following yonder star.

End

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